Virginia Johnson (1925-2013)
Virginia Johnson conducted research on human sexuality and sexual dysfunction as part of the Masters and Johnson research team.
Virginia Johnson was born Virginia Eshelman on February 11, 1925, in Springfield, Missouri. A gifted child, she skipped several grades and attended Drury college at 16. She also attended the University of Missouri between 1944 and 1947. Johnson was an accomplished pianist and singer and briefly considered pursuing a career in music, studying at the Kansas Conservatory of Music.
In 1957, Johnson sought employment at the Washington University School of Medicine and was quickly hired by Dr. William Masters. Masters needed a research assistant for his obstetrics and gynecology department and the pair conducted years of groundbreaking research on human sexuality. Masters and Johnson observed and recorded responses to sexual stimuli as they occurred within test subjects in their laboratory. The team began collaborating in clinical practice as well, offering the expertise and knowledge they had gained from their research to couples seeking treatment for sexual issues.
Together, Johnson and Masters established the nonprofit Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in 1964. As a result of their pioneering efforts, Johnson and Masters published two widely popular books within three years, Human Sexual Response in 1966 and Human Sexual Inadequacy in 1970. Masters and Johnson married the following year and founded the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis in 1973, where Johnson served as co-director. Johnson never finished her degree in sociology, but Masters trained her in medical terminology, psychology, and research methods.
Masters and Johnson divorced in 1992. The separation was amicable, and Johnson continued her research independently. Johnson died in 2013 in St. Louis.
Contribution to Psychology
Virginia Johnson is recognized as one of the leading sexologists of our time. She spent more than five decades conducting research, teaching, and practicing treatment for sexual dysfunction. Along with her long-time partner, William Masters, Johnson spearheaded the field of sexual psychology.
At the Masters & Johnson Institute, Johnson observed and recorded heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples, and individuals, for sexual response. Prior to their studies, very few experts had delved so deeply into the field of sexology. Alfred Kinsey was among the few who touched on the psychological aspects of sexual issues before Johnson and Masters, but Johnson and her colleague were the first to study sexual intercourse and masturbation as it relates to sexual behavior and psychology. The team developed the four stage model of human sexual response and dispelled many sexual myths relating to age, gender, and sexual orientation.
One of the most profound impacts Johnson’s work had on the field of psychology was in the area of treating sexual dysfunction. Until the observations at the Masters & Johnson Institute, sexual impairments were treated with very little success through prolonged courses of individual psychoanalysis. However, the team created a treatment method that involved both members of a couple. The therapy was designed to be a talking therapy and involved no sexual activity observation. Couples who had previously faced frustration and disappointment saw success rates over 80% with this novel technique. The pair developed a model of sexual response that is still used to understand sexuality today. The four stages are:
- The excitement phase of initial arousal.
- The plateau phase, which occurs prior to orgasm but marks full arousal.
- The resolution phase, which closes the cycle.
The team also found that men experience a refractory period after they ejaculate and that they cannot ejaculate again during this period.
Criticism and Controversy
While the Masters and Johnson research is still widely used to understand human sexual behavior, some researchers criticized the team. For a time, they hired sexual surrogates to facilitate therapy sessions addressing a client’s sexual problems. In addition, the pair purported that homosexuality was a learned behavior in their book, Homosexuality in Perspective, and they briefly ran a clinic designed to convert homosexuals to heterosexuals. However, in the biography Masters of Sex, it is reported that Virginia Johnson was concerned about the ethics of this program from its inception.
- Fox, Margalit. (2013, July 25). Virginia Johnson, Widely Published Collaborator in Sex Research, Dies at 88. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/26/us/virginia-johnson-masterss-collaborator-in-sex-research-dies-at-88.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
- Nehring, C. (2009, Jun 28). Practice, practice, practice. New York Times Book Review. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/217328827?accountid=1229
- Virginia E. Johnson. (2007). World of Health. Biography In Context. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
Last Update: 07-03-2015